Culture

Cohabitation leading to a shotgun wedding and a bitter divorce

Review

BEIRUT: To the casual spectator of the Arab Middle East, no two political systems could be more different than those of Lebanon and Syria. Whether the barometer be economic (dirigisme versus laissez-faire), political (overweening security state versus fractious neofeudalism) or mythological (Arabism versus Phoenician-ism), the two countries tend to be read as opposites.

There are other narratives. Syrians and Lebanese, it has been argued, share similarities born of geographical and cultural proximity and shared political history - whether under the Ottomans or French. These suggest a common economic and political destiny.

Such ideals have gone out of fashion in the age of globalization, not least because they were press-ganged to rationalize an internationally sanctioned Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Still, readers with more than a passing interest in local history will recall that, once upon a time, the political culture of Syria and Lebanon looked more similar.

During the French Mandate, the nascent political class of Syria and Lebanon were part of the same gentlemen's club of Ottoman- and Mandate-era administrators, landlords and merchants. Many were friends, business associates and - when religious prejudices didn't forbid it - related by marriage.

These men inherited the mechanisms of the French colonial state, structures already joined in a common customs union. Rather than reinforcing and deepening such ties - let alone dissolving the artificial borders drawn between them - this political class reinforced the barriers dividing them.

How this came to pass is the story taken up by Youssef Chaitani in his book "Post-Colonial Syria and Lebanon: The Decline of Arab Nationalism and the Triumph of the State."

Over the course of its six painstaking chapters, the book scrutinizes Lebanese-Syrian relations from 1943 (when Lebanese and Syrian Arab nationalists and Lebanese nationalists forged a strategic alliance against the French Mandate) to 1950, when Syrian Premier Khalid al-Azm finally dissolved the countries' joint customs regime.

Chaitani draws upon documents from the British Foreign Office and the US State Department and Foreign Service (the French are absent). His local, primary sources of choice are editorials and commentaries drawn from an array of contemporary newspapers - Lebanon's Al-Bashir, Beirut, Beirut al-Masa, Le Jour, An-Nahar and L'Orient and Syria's Al-Istiqlal al-Arabi and Al-Qabas.

More than sources, these press clippings provide the "voice" of Chaitani's narrative. The author himself, a political affairs officer at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, remains aloof of the rhetoric he's depicting. When his voice is evident - principally in the book's introduction and conclusion - he remains less argumentative than descriptive.

In the interest of full disclosure, this journalist has a particular familiarity with this work, since he was employed to read the manuscript (then a PhD thesis) before it went to defense.

At the center of Chaitani's discussion is the Higher Council of the Common Interests (HCCI). Founded in 1928 by the French, it administered the income and expenditure of the customs, postal and telegram services and antiquities, and supervised the concessions granted to companies in what we now know as Lebanon and Syria.

Some 95 percent of HCCI's revenues came from customs receipts and Lebanese and Syrian representatives couldn't agree on how to allocate the proceeds. The significance of the HCCI never waned during this period. Arab nationalists in both countries hoped it would provide the skeleton of the close economic and fiscal integration of, or at least coordination between, the two countries.

On the other hand, Syrian and Lebanese political classes both leaned heavily on the HCCI because neither had the means to create or administer a regime of direct taxation. The influence of commercial and landed elites in both countries ensured they lacked the political will to do so as well.

Two related motifs that Chaitani recounts are Lebanese resentment at the price of Syrian wheat (as demanded by the monetary and customs union, and always higher than international wheat prices) and Syrian resentment at being captive to Beirut (which meant being subject to its merchants, who were notorious for astronomical mark-ups on imported goods.)

Relations between Beirut and Damascus were put under further strain during negotiations for Tapline, the ARAMCO pipeline that would bring Saudi oil through Syria to refineries on the Mediterranean coast.

The relationship between the two countries was fundamentally altered with the rise of Husni al-Zaim, the army general who led the first of Syria's several military coups. As Chaitani demonstrates, though, the monetary union had already undergone critical strains before the combination of administrative inexperience, domestic economic and political stasis and foreign policy crisis evicted Damascus' old political class.

Chaitani's book is the first to treat this period of Lebanese-Syrian relations in such a thoroughgoing manner, and so it will be required reading for students of both countries. There are shortcomings in the methodology, though, and it might be argued that the book is not quite doing what it wants to do.

The central pillars of his discussion are "opinion makers" in both countries, shorthand for the newspaper editorialists whose works he devoured while researching the book. The term immediately raises questions of whose opinions these writers expressed and whose they "made."

Chaitani notes in passing that these editorialists belonged to the economic and political elite of each country. This intimacy of power and publication makes these commentaries an invaluable record of the rhetorical projection of each country's factional disputes - indeed a better subtitle for Chaitani's book might be "the triumph of factionalism" rather than "triumph of the state."

Claims that these leaders reflected or "formed" a "public opinion" beyond this proscribed circle is more difficult to substantiate.

With few statistics on literacy levels at that time, it's difficult to know how "public" the opinions expressed in these newspapers were. The question is amplified when considering that grassroots politics in 21st-century Lebanon (perhaps

in Syria too) is still inflected by clan and neofeudal loyalties as well as, or to the exclusion of, what the editorialist of Al-Mustaqbal writes.

Readers innocent of Syrian and Lebanese politics in the Mandate era might be tempted to assume that the reading public was comparable to that in America and Western Europe at the time, mirroring the relationship between politicians and their constituencies. Such readers should be warned. Students more familiar with such vagaries are already forearmed.

Youssef Chaitani's "Post-Colonial Syria and Lebanon: The Decline of Arab Nationalism and the Triumph of the State" is published by I.B. Tauris

 

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